5 Ways Creativity Fuels Innovative (and Joyful) School Cultures

June 10, 2015

A blank canvas presents a dilemma: beginning something from nothing is both exciting and scary. Why? Because the process that ensues from the first brushstroke (or the first sentence of a book, or...) can feel like walking over coals -- or quicksand. We can't help but have a vision for what we want this blank space to look like, but we know from experience that what we envision in our heads is virtually never what results -- it is simply a starting point. Getting to the completed product takes work. It takes slogging through cruddy, muddled thinking and execution. It requires the willingness and patience to spend the time to make the work feel right.

In other words, it is akin to what the teacher feels each day as she stands in front of a classroom full of new students -- or a site leader opening up the first staff meeting of the year.  Excitement coupled with some anxiety for what lies ahead!

Richard Diebenkorn, the late painter, put it this way: "I don't go into the studio with the idea of 'saying' something. What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue." Diebenkorn is one of my most cherished inspirations in the realm of thinking and creating -- not only because I love his paintings, but also because of his methodology: approaching new work with an open mindset to the journey he was undertaking and understanding that the final result would not resemble in any real way the initial image or spark that guided his first movements. He was also brave in not succumbing to art market pressures that would have him reproduce early successes to guarantee his collectors stayed happy. His paintings had to be right by him to leave his studio.

What is the connection between oil painting and dynamic school culture? I believe the connection comes down to a question of confidence: do we (as painters, teachers, leaders) have the confidence to embark on a journey whose destination is not fixed? Where failure is always a possibility? Are we secure enough in our own skin to engage in the struggle of creation on a public stage? To create something truly unique and relevant to current (and future) contexts, the painter and the educator must be comfortable with uncertainty. 

Being a leader doesn't mean having answers. It means thinking about the convergence of the myriad elements that comprise the work of the organization and creating opportunities for people to contribute (and belong) to a larger purpose. Good leaders attend thoughtfully and efficiently to the technical aspects of their organization. They also understand that the organizational health (and success) depends on tapping the experience, wisdom, and beliefs of their staff. Leaders have the incredible opportunity (and responsibility) to set the tone for how people feel about their work. They can model a mindset that sees opportunity and possibility in even the most challenging of circumstances (see Shackleton's loss of the Endurance as evidence).

So what role can creativity (painting is just my personal medium of choice) play in creating a high-functioning, innovative, and brave organizational culture?

1. Trial and Error Mindset is a Stepping Stone to Better Work 

Creativity is valuable in and of itself, regardless of the work produced, or if it is work deemed worthy of keeping. All painters have painted over (or thrown away) their fair share of work. Even if the finished piece is a "failure," the process of creating it will inform better work in the future. It is important to note that everything we do isn't always good -- and certainly much that is good now didn't start that way!

2. Infuse the School Climate with Joy

Allowing time for creative play is healthy for the spirit, for the morale, for the esprit de corps. At a recent staff development day in my district that we organized as an EdCamp, we held ukulele and printmaking sessions. We fueled our collective sense of wonder and joy when we experienced creative play together.

3. Sharing and Borrowing are the Norm -- Not the Exception

Creative work is often coupled with the desire to share -- to communicate (medium unimportant) how the creator experiences and filters the world through their unique lens. What professional/psychological disposition is more important to a school staff than the desire to share work -- to be vulnerable enough to seek dialogue and input about ideas? To improve our own ideas with the creativity of others?

4. Tap Into the Genius Native to Your Site/District

There is a lot of talk about the "Genius Hour" -- one example is the 20% of work time that Google gives its employees to do "blank canvas" work, they are passionate about (ergo Gmail!). If we lead from a belief that our staff is comprised of learners, of people who are not fixed vessels of knowledge but curious explorers, then opening up time and space for educators to create new things (rather than make iterative adjustments to what exists in the form of curriculum, assessment, etc.) seems to be an incredibly cost-effective way to grow a healthy, collaborative culture and nourish an innovative working environment.

5. Connect More Deeply with the Community

Human beings are uplifted by beauty and newness regardless of age or walk of life. What message would we send if we turned our schools into revolving galleries of student, staff, and community art?

What does the blank canvas look like to the leader? It can be something big -- a new team-oriented process for problem solving -- or something very small, like reaching out to a colleague that you have noticed has been quiet at staff meetings. The "canvas" can be a relationship; it can be a structure. Like most painters, the school leader is working on multiple canvases at once. Starting something big can have modest beginnings. In fact, I think that is usually the case.

The most wonderful part about creating something is witnessing it unfold -- all the decisions made that, layer after layer, eventually result in something that feels complete (one could argue that nothing is ever "finished"). Painter Robert Motherwell called it the "10,000 brush strokes." This is an intensely personal experience --  unique to everyone that makes something of nothing. The excitement -- and challenge -- of being an educational leader comes from orchestrating this process on the ever-changing canvas of a school.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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